by Tari Gwaemir
On second chances.
"Wake up, Yuuki. You're going to be late."
"It's seven-thirty. You might make it in time if you hurry."
He groaned and buried his head under the blankets. "Fine. Fine. I'll be up in a second."
Footsteps leaving the room. He turned over in his bed and opened his eyes. Sunlight. Another morning.
He dozed on and off in the warm post-lunch lull, the murmur of quadratics and conic sections buzzing in his ears. His seatmate nudged him awake just as the teacher dismissed the class for the day. He stood up with a yawn and bowed with the rest of the class.
"Hey Mitani, coming with us to the arcade?"
"Nah, not today."
He shrugged and left the classroom quickly, his jacket and bag slung over his shoulder. He stared at the tiled floor as he walked, to avoid catching anyone's eyes.
"Wait up, Mitani-kun!" He sighed and came to a stop.
"Oh. Hey, Fujisaki."
"Are you going home already?"
"Yeah." He didn't look at her but continued walking.
"The go club is meeting today. You could...you could drop by for a game, if you wanted."
"But I don't."
"Please, Mitani-kun. We had fun last year in middle school, didn't we? You even made it to the final round in the last tournament."
"Where we were trounced soundly by Kaio. Again." He walked faster.
"Well, if you ever change your mind, we're on the second floor next to the computer lab!" Her voice receded behind him as he left the building.
He blinked at the sudden glare of sunlight and shaded his eyes. A crowd of students loitered in the courtyard and kicked up dust. He grimaced as he navigated his way through them, ducking to avoid the occasional baseball sailing over his head.
He made it to the gate. There was a tattered flyer with a half-legible tsumego problem attached to the announcements board. He paused before it, then shook his head and resolutely walked on.
"Oh! You're home already?"
"I came straight home."
"Don't you have club activities after classes? You're in that--that go club, aren't you?"
"That was in middle school, Mom. Besides I wasn't in the club." He flung his bag and jacket on the couch and turned on the television. Some sort of news report. Boring. He was about to flip the channel, when a name caught his attention.
"--Shindou Hikaru, shodan, and Yashiro Kiyoharu, also shodan, will be Japan's representatives in the tournament. In other sports news, the veteran baseball--"
He turned it off. Japan's...representative? What?
"Would you like something to eat, Yuuki? Shouldn't you get started on your homework?"
He went into his room and slammed the door shut. He kicked aside a fallen poster and sat down on the floor. The old goban tucked away under his desk caught his eye, and he gave it a guilty glance. "Hey, Grandpa."
He looked at the CDs littered on his bed and idly flipped through them before dropping them on the floor beside him. He sighed and leaned back against the bed. "You know, two years ago, he barely knew how to play. Now he's, what, in some kind of international thing? Representing Japan. That means he's one of the best."
He kicked at the rug. "What does that make me then, a stepping stone for Shindou Hikaru? Man, that's so uncool."
He glanced at the goban again. "What d'you think, Grandpa?"
Silence. It figured. He grabbed his wallet and left the room.
"Yuuki, I heard that Maeko's mother is already sending her to cram school to prepare for college entrance exams. I've been thinking perhaps we should do the same with you. You barely passed your high school exam, and only because that nice girl helped you out, what's her name again--"
"Kaneko. Kaneko Masako."
"Right! Masako-chan! Anyway, I know it's only your first year, but your father has his heart set on sending you to college, and since--wait, where are you going, Yuuki?"
"Go salon." He hastily put on his shoes.
"This is exactly why you do so badly in school. What about your homework? Yuuki, wait...be back in time for dinner, you hear?"
He closed the door behind him.
"Didn't you know? Shuu-san had a stroke last winter."
"Oh. I haven't been here in a while."
"He closed the place down and went to live with his son in Nagasaki. Probably for the best. It's hard to live alone when you're old."
"I see." He jammed his hands in his pockets and walked back up the stairs.
Now what? He looked up and down the street. There was a bus stop nearby. Strange--for all the years he'd been coming here, he had never noticed it before.
"Huh. So where does this go to?" He stood beneath the sign and waited, humming under his breath.
After a few moments, a bus pulled up before him with a loud screech. The door opened with a whoosh of air.
"Getting on or not?"
He hesitated, then searched in his wallet for some change. He dropped the coins in the fare box and took a seat by the window. The bus started again with a vicious jerk and tore down the street at an alarming speed.
Outside, the streets and buildings passing by. Students in uniform hanging outside arcades and karaoke, women pushing strollers or holding children by the hand, the occasional salaryman walking home with a briefcase in one hand and a jacket in the other. He glimpsed the green gates of Haze Middle School, in need of a new paint job, then the old playground near his elementary school with its sandbox and flock of pigeons. The go salon where he used to go to take lessons back when they still lived near his grandfather's place. But the bus soon sailed into new territory, a different neighborhood he'd never ventured into before. He leaned his head against the glass and watched his breath fog the window.
"Last stop, Fujitsu Apartments. Last stop." He looked up at the rush of people leaving and got off the bus too.
The buildings were new and tall, with uniform red doors and gleaming aluminum railings. There was a small park next to the apartment complex, with carefully positioned trees and a brightly painted playground set. The pavement was swept clean, free of soda cans and paper bags that usually littered a community park. The place was deserted, except for a few children playing in the basketball court at the far end--but he wasn't interested in basketball. The sun was low in the sky and coloring the clouds a pale red. He held his hand up and imagined he was blotting out the sun.
"Haven't seen you around here before," said a rasping voice. "Care to play a game?"
He turned around. Sitting on one of the benches, with a small fold-up table in front of him, was an old man in a tattered brown jacket and flannel shirt, peering at him through small round spectacles that were surely a half-century old. He had before him a cardboard sign, with "Game With the Fujitsu Park Meijin: ¥100" written in large shaky characters.
"Fujitsu Park Meijin?" He snorted. "Yeah, right. Then I must be the god of go."
"Really? Pleased to make your acquaintance then. What say you to a game?"
"Eh?" He walked towards the table and noticed the cheap fold-up goban with two closed ke sitting on the bench next to the so-called Meijin. "And pay you a hundred yen for the favor?"
The old man impatiently tapped the sign before him. "Look here."
"'Five thousand if you win.'" He glanced at the "Meijin" skeptically. "Do you even have five thousand on you?"
"Of course. I'm not easy to beat." The old man winked and gestured to the folding stool by the table. "In fact, I may even say that I've never lost in an even game. Not in this park, anyway. Come, take a seat."
He sat down and dropped a hundred-yen coin on the table. It landed with a thunk. "Very well, gramps. Let's see what you got."
"With the komi, I'd say that'll be about a nine-moku loss. Why don't you give up now?"
"It's not over yet, gramps."
"If you say so. But it's getting dark."
The streetlamps were turning on, one by one, down the walkways of the park. He sighed and studied the board with a squint. Nothing changed. Halfway through yose, and no real chance to make up the loss unless he cheated again. But it wasn't worth cheating over a stupid hundred-yen game.
"I have nothing." He gritted his teeth at the old man's complacent smile.
"Not bad, not bad. I thought from the look of you that you'd know how to handle the stones. You can tell after a while, you know, who plays and who doesn't. Didn't expect you to have talent though."
"You went easy on me, didn't you, 'Meijin'?"
"I was in the National Amateur Tournament six times in my younger days. Almost made it to the semifinals once."
"Yeah, whatever. I should be going." He got up to his feet.
"Come again, kid. Maybe you'll win next time."
"Maybe I will."
"Mitani-kun, did you hear? Hikaru's going to be on the Japanese team for the Hokuto Cup!"
He rolled his eyes. "Like I care what that idiot does."
"He'll be playing against pros from China and Korea. Go Weekly says the other two countries are really strong."
"Yeah, yeah." He tried to focus on his magazine, but Fujisaki kept talking.
"Some of the go club members and I are planning to go and watch. Tsutsui-senpai says he will too. And Kumiko and Natsume-kun want to come as well."
"Well, we were wondering--we were hoping you would want to come with us."
He dropped his magazine and glared at her. "Watch that bastard play? No way in hell."
"Stop bothering me, Fujisaki. I couldn't care less about go, so don't try to drag me back in." As soon as he said it, he winced.
There was an uncomfortable pause. "You don't mean that."
"How do you know?" He turned in his seat to face away from her.
"Very well, Mitani-kun." He heard her sniff as she left. He didn't dare to turn around until he was sure she was gone. He sighed and let his head fall on the desk.
"Well, well. What was Fujisaki talking to you about? I didn't know you knew her."
"I'm kind of jealous. She's such a babe! Oi, Mitani, introduce me sometime, won't you?"
He lifted his head to glare at his classmates. "Not in your lifetime. Shut up, all of you."
"I heard she's taken though. Boyfriend on the soccer team, or something like that."
"What? Soccer team? You sure?"
"Fairly recent news, but they've been caught holding hands by the Gossip Squad in 1C. Pretty reliable source, I should say."
He frowned. "You're kidding me. The soccer team?"
"Yeah, Kimejima or something like that."
"Oh man, another eligible single crossed off my list. I ranked her pretty high too."
He shook his head in disbelief. "And here I thought she was all but engaged to Shindou."
"Shindou? Who's that?"
"Oh yeah, didn't he go to Haze? What high school is he at now?"
He leaned his chair back and stretched his arms behind his head. "He's not in high school. He's a professional go player."
"Never mind, you idiots." He picked up his magazine again. Couldn't care less about go--well. Anything to stop Fujisaki from chatting about stupid Shindou with his stupid tournaments.
"Hey kid, at this rate you're just going to lose a lot of money."
He gritted his teeth and dug in his pocket for another coin. "One more game."
The old man shook his head and cleared the board. "Two stones again?"
"Yeah." He fidgeted as the old man set out the handicap stones.
"There we go." The 'Meijin' passed him the goke. "Please."
"Please," he muttered as he leaned forward to place his first hand.
The old man chewed on the end of his cigarette as he studied the board. "Hey kid. Do you know why you're playing this game?"
"Most kids don't have the patience for a slow-moving game like go. Why aren't you playing something more exciting, like a video game?"
"Video games are boring."
"Wish my grandson thought that. He can't take his eyes off the screen for more than a minute these days."
He narrowed his eyes and went in for the attack. There.
"Oh, very good. I see you're not going to make it easy for me."
There was a pause as they both stared intently at the black and white pattern.
"Sometimes I look at you, and I think, this kid, he hates to lose. But does he really want to win?"
"Of course I want to win. That's why I keep playing."
"But you're sticking to the same old strategies. And making the same mistakes. It's as if you're afraid of change."
His hand curled into fists on his knees. He did not look up as he placed his next hand. "Shut up, 'Meijin'. Say it after you win."
It was another six-moku loss. But the old man remained silent.
"Yuuki, where do you keep going after school? If you have nothing better to do, shouldn't you be at home? Don't you have exams coming up soon?
"There was a news report the other day on high school delinquents hanging out at arcades and making trouble on the streets. I hope you haven't fallen in with the wrong sort at school. Your father and I are expecting you to do your best.
"Yuuki? Are you even listening? Yuuki."
He only heard music through his earphones as he lay on his bed, leafing through a magazine. Out on the floor, dragged out into the middle of the room, was the old goban, still thick with dust.
"Not bad, not bad. You're getting bolder."
"Heh." His scowl relaxed into a grin.
"But don't get complacent yet." His opponent placed the next move, the stone landing almost violently on the board. An attack.
He defended his hard-won territory, with clever traps and careful hands. He strained to see the larger pattern, the shapes forming on the board, black encroaching on white and white on black.
"Don't just think, kid." Another devastating attack. He hastily constructed barriers and connections, building reinforcements around his stones.
"The strange thing about go is that you can't hold back and hope for safety. You have to strike out, invade, adapt. You can't say to your opponent, 'This land is yours, this land is mine, let's shake hands and make peace.' You have to interact."
"Yeah?" He placed another stone and tried not to wince. That lower left corner was already dead, no use rescuing it.
"And you know, interactions are messy. You can't just protect yourself all the time." One more attack. He stared at his broken formations and mentally tried to tally up the moku.
He picked up a stone and dropped it. He picked it up again.
"Hey kid. It's over."
He dropped the stone. "I have lost."
He sat down in front of the old goban and brushed off the dust. He polished the surface again and again, until the wood gleamed in the dull yellow light of his room.
"Sorry for neglecting it, Grandpa." He gave the board one last wipe before he set the cloth aside and opened a goke. He picked up a stone and placed it at the upper right star. The sound of stone against wood seemed to echo in the quiet room.
"You know, at first it was, well, just a game. Puzzling out where to go to live or die. Fortresses on a battlefield. A make-believe war. I don't know why I forgot it was a game."
He placed another stone on the board. "A way to get money. Then a matter of keeping my pride. Man, I was so pissed when we lost to Kaio again."
He sighed and slid the board away. "Shindou found a higher goal than Kaio. But I don't have anything, do I?"
He got off the bus and hurried into the park. It was busier than usual, with a group of mothers gossiping on a park bench while keeping an eye on their children. He looked about, but the old man wasn't there. Neither was the goban or the old cardboard sign.
He went ahead and sat at the usual spot anyway. It was nearly summer; the sky a cloudless blue. He scuffed his feet against the pavement as he waited.
"Mitani? Is that you?"
He looked up. "Kaneko?"
"What on earth are you doing here?"
"I should say the same to you."
She gave him a sardonic smile. "I live here. Fujitsu Apartments?"
"Oh." He shrugged and tried to look nonchalant.
"So what are you doing here?"
"I, uh. Came here to play go." At her incredulous look, he added, somewhat defensively, "You know, that old guy. Calls himself the Fujitsu Park Meijin. He's pretty strong, you know."
Her puzzled expression cleared. "You must be talking about Masuyama-san. Yeah, he's been around for a while. He's the one who taught me, you know."
She nodded. "Well, if you're looking for Masuyama-san, you're out of luck. He's babysitting his grandsons today."
He felt a bit deflated. "Oh."
"'Oh.' Is that all you have to say to an old friend?"
"You're not my friend."
She stuck her tongue out at him. "Rival then."
He snorted. "So why does the 'Meijin'--I mean, Masuyama-san sit out here and play games for money?"
"Don't know. He's a bit eccentric. But you know, a lot of the grandfathers in this neighborhood sit around and play him on the weekends. It's a bit of a neighborhood tradition."
"He must make a lot of money then."
"It's only a hundred yen per game. Besides, he doesn't always win. Just most of the time."
She sat down next to him and swung her feet. He became very still; he had never been so close to a girl before. He could feel her solid presence, the calmness, the self-confidence in her posture. He held his breath.
"Hey Mitani. Play a game with me."
"I joined the go club at my high school, and I've been practicing a lot lately. I want to see if I've gotten any stronger."
"How do you know if I haven't gotten stronger as well?"
"We'll see when we play, won't we?" She smiled at him, that familiar smile with a maddening quirk to the eyebrows. A challenge he couldn't refuse.
"Sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four...with the komi, that's a half-moku win. Yes! I won!"
"Oh, shut up," he grumbled, clearing away the stones. "It's only one win."
"I beat you! In an even game!" She got up and danced around, nearly upsetting the precariously balanced goban in the process.
"Yeah, well, it isn't happening again, so treasure the moment." He scowled at her before looking back at the scrambled stones with a sigh. "The old man's right. I'm not changing at all."
She came to a stop before him, slightly out of breath from excitement, and peered into his face. "Eh?"
"First Shindou, now you--everyone else is getting stronger, while I stay the same. I'm...I'm just stuck here."
He buried his face in his hands. "I don't even know why I keep playing go. I don't know why I can't just give it up. I don't...I don't even care about this game."
"You don't mean that."
He lifted his head, startled by the certainty in her voice. "What?"
"You do care, otherwise you wouldn't have come all the way out here to play an old man you barely know just because he could teach you something about go."
"Shut up, know-it-all."
"And who was it that tutored you after school everyday so you'd pass your high school entrance exams?"
He crossed his arms and refused to answer.
She finally sat down next to him again, resting her chin in her hands. "Hey Mitani. I don't really know Shindou-kun all that well, so I can't speak for him. I mean, he's a pro and all, so maybe go means something different for him than it does for someone like me. Maybe it's something grand and important--you know, they do say go was once used to see into the future.
"But you know, for me, it's nothing so complicated like that. It's...well, it's fun. Playing game after game with all sorts of people, trying again and again to do better each time, until you dream in grids and circles at night...well, that's why I keep playing."
He did not turn to look at her, but he held his breath again.
"For me, each game is like a conversation. Sometimes with a stranger who you don't understand...sometimes with an old friend." She flashed him a smile. "But there's always something new being said."
She patted him awkardly on the shoulder, and he slouched back against the bench, feeling suddenly tired. "Thanks, Kaneko."
"Not a problem."
"Yesterday, Japan came in last place in the Hokuto Cup, the international go tournament for young professionals under eighteen, being hosted for the first time by Hokuto Communications. Touya Akira won both games against China and Korea but Shindou Hikaru and Yashiro Kiyoharu were unable to pull out a victory, despite some very close matches. Some believe that the disappointing finish was due to a controversial decision by team manager Kurata 6-dan to replace Touya with Shindou in the first board position for the--"
"Yuuki, didn't one of those boys go to school with you? Shindou Hikaru."
"Yeah. He dragged me into the go club. Then he quit to become an insei and study to become a pro."
"Isn't that remarkable? So he's now a professional? You should be very proud of knowing such a boy."
"You must have learned a lot from him while you were in the club together."
"Actually, he learned from me. I was the strongest player in the club for a while."
"My goodness! Perhaps you should have become a professional too."
He smiled. "Nah. I'm not Shindou."
"Well, you should keep playing. The number one secret to success in life is cultivating your talents!"
"I don't know about that, Mom. But yeah...I'll keep playing." He placed another stone on the goban.
"Give it up, 'Meijin'. Isn't it time for you to resign?"
"I've a few more tricks in me yet. How's that?" The solid clink of a stone against the board.
"Not enough." He played his next hand and looked up with a smirk.
There was a long silence. Finally, the old man shook his head and closed his goke. "I have nothing."
He jumped up and punched the air. "Yeah, I did it! Finally!"
"Now, don't get too excited, kid. I may have underestimated you this once, but it won't happen again."
"Still, now I can go around and say that I've beat the Fujitsu Park Meijin. In an even game, no less!" He grinned and held out his hand. "Hand over the five thousand."
"Taking money from a poor old man like me, you ought to be ashamed," Masuyama grumbled, but smiled as he passed over the bill.
"Now, if you beat me in the next game, I'll give you ten thousand yen."
"Why, you little punk! You don't even have that kind of money!"
"How do you know?" They cleared the board. "Hey, old man. I think I know the answer now."
"Eh?" Masuyama gave him a sharp glance.
"Why I play go."
"Oh? Why's that?"
"For second chances."
He slid the door open with a thud and stalked into the room. "So. Where do I sit?"
"Mitani-kun!" Fujisaki looked delighted. She waved him over to an empty goban.
"Who's this? A first-year?"
"He's my old friend from Haze go club. He played first board."
"Oh? You must be pretty strong then. What's your name?"
"Mitani Yuuki." He glanced around at the room. Several old goban laid out on the lab benches, in between the sinks and hoods. On the chalkboard, a list of the match-ups for the day. Several of the senpai had started their games already; the first-years were all clustered in a corner at the end of the room where Fujisaki was sitting. He was startled to recognize Natsume and Tsuda in their midst. They waved at him cheerfully, but he ignored them.
He sat down across the board from Fujisaki. "So, am I playing you first?"
"Yes!" She clapped her hands. "It's so good to see you here, Mitani-kun."
"Four stones or five?"
"Four? Why not three? I've gotten stronger, you know."
He smirked. "Fine. Put down three, and I'll wipe the floor with you."
She pouted and put down four stones. "Please."
The ticking clocks, the sound of stones against wood, the inaudible hiss of tension in the air--he took a deep breath as it all sunk in. What was it that Kaneko said? Each game was a new conversation. He dug his fingers into the goke and met his opponent's eyes.
"Eh? Shindou? What're you doing here?"
"Just picking up something for Mom. It's...been a while."
"Yeah. I'm, uh, meeting up with Kaneko. You know, the volleyball girl?"
"I see." They both leaned back against the fence.
"Heard about that tournament you were in."
"Oh, that? Yeah. I lost though."
"It was a pretty close game, though. Especially against that Korean guy."
Shindou nodded. He seemed older, more tired, his face in shadow. "Still a defeat. But I'll win next time."
Mitani glanced up at the bright afternoon sky and squinted against the sunlight. "Yeah. Me too."